Monday, 13 May 2013

We are an Island you know....

I'm going to put back one of my planned posts for a day or two, because I want to address a particular quote that came up in a recent discussion over at Think Defence. This is a quote that comes up often, normally a few weeks after it has been soundly and comprehensively addressed, when the author of the quote suspects that everyone will have forgotten about the prior discussion. 

It also appears occasionally in other places around the web on a semi-regular basis and I want to post a comprehensive response here that I and others can simply link back to in the future, to save time for myself and others in constantly having to type out the same responses over and over again.

If nothing else it allows me to have a bit of a rant, which is always good for the soul.
The precise implication of the quote "we are an island you know" can depend on the context in which it is used, but the most common context encountered is that of someone trying to argue why the rest of the defence budget should be sucked dry in order to fund a massively enhanced Royal Navy, and as such that is the context in which this quote will be addressed.

Because being an Island simply isn't what it used to be.

There was a time when the short stretch of water between Dover and Calais might as well have been a thousand miles wide. Obviously there are certain differences between shifting an army by sea across a gap of a few tens of miles vs hundreds or thousands of miles, but fundamentally the problem was the same; assembling and then protecting a large fleet of transport ships from close attack by the Royal Navy.

Over time though the threat has evolved significantly, both to our island and to the enemy fleet. One evolution was the advent of the aircraft. 

During World War One, German airships were able to attack British cities from above using small bombs, the first time an enemy had attacked the mainland United Kingdom while bypassing the seas that surrounded it. It was the prelude to an even more fierce assault during World War Two, when German aircraft pounded British cities night after night during 1940 and beyond.

It represented a massive shift in the way in which future wars could be conducted against the UK. The possession of a large navy was no longer sufficient to defend the UK from attack as now the enemy had found the means to be able to bypass the array of Destroyers, Cruisers, Battleships and Submarines below.

The aircraft also posed a new challenge for the Navy itself. It's docks and harbours, defended from surprise attack by enemy surface and sub-surface vessels, could now be raided from above with sometimes no more than a few minutes notice, by an attacker who could largely evade the defences below.

Even at sea the Navy was no longer as safe as it once had been. The evacuation of British forces from Crete by the Royal Navy saw the rescuers subjected to repeated, heavy air attacks from land based German aircraft. Over 1,800 Royal Navy personnel were killed and nearly another 200 seriously wounded, with the loss of three cruisers and six destroyers. In addition, the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, two battleships, four cruisers and two destroyers were so badly damaged that they were put out of action for several months to conduct repairs.

The ability of aircraft to reach out and strike at a variety of targets had changed the equation of UK defence somewhat. The ability to protect the UK from air attack, as well as the need to protect the home fleet from the same, was now a very real concern. The UK needed the ability to fight fire with fire, which meant fighter aircraft capable of intercepting and defeating hostile fighters and bombers, preventing them (or at least disrupting them) in their attacks.

Meanwhile, out in the midst of the wild and cold Atlantic Ocean, aircraft were also changing the nature of Britain's defence of its sea lines of communication.

Since the start of the second world war the German navy had adopted a similar approach to starving Britain into submission as it had in the first. Submarines -  launched first from bases in Germany and then later from the French Atlantic Coast - were used to attack and sink merchant shipping heading to and from Britain. Ships carrying food, raw materials, finished products, ammunition, and later people, were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic as Germany once again attempted to slowly squeeze the life out of Britain.

It took time for Britain to respond, but eventually the hard won lessons during the first "Battle of the Atlantic" in 1914-18 were re-adopted for the second, and merchant vessels were now formed into organised convoys to make the journey across the Atlantic together, along with supporting vessels of the Royal Navy.

But in this war the Germans had a new weapon to help them. The Focke Wolfe 200 "Condor" was a large, four engined airliner converted to the Maritime Patrol task. Flying from bases in France, it allowed the German forces to sweep vast areas of the Atlantic in a matter of a few hours, hunting for convoys whose position and course could then be transmitted to waiting U-boats.

This new concept - referred to in modern parlance as a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) - significantly enhanced the ability of nations to search the seas around them and either report the position of hostile naval forces, or indeed to engage them on site with weapons carried by the MPA.

The Germans were not the only belligerent interested in the idea of the MPA though. In Britain, RAF Coastal Command responded with aircraft such as the Short Sunderland, Consolidated PBY Catalina, and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. These aircraft had immense range and helped to close the "air gap" over the Atlantic, which meant that German submarines interdicting the UK-US supply lines were always within range of at least one countries aircraft.

And not only could Coastal Commands aircraft report on the location of submarines that they spotted, they too could also attack them. The significant casualties inflicted on the U-boats by Coastal Command aircraft contributed greatly to the protection of British shipping and the defeat of the U-Boat menace. It also paved the way for the development of today's MPA, which when equipped with surface search radar, air deployable sonar buoys, and a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), represents one of the most dangerous threats to enemy submarines and shipping in the modern world.

The use and development of aircraft then has fundamentally changed the nature of defending an Island. It has changed the nature of the threats that an Island nation like ours faces and it has changed how we can respond to those threats as part of a comprehensive defensive plan.

All this also ties in to another quote that often appears shortly after "We are an Island you know", that being "... and 90% of our trade travels by sea" or words to that effect. Again, the implication is that because so much trade travels by sea, then the natural answer to protecting it is a super sized Navy.

This quote does however miss a rather big point. That point being that a lot our trade travels to and from no further than the continent. In terms of food imports for example, the biggest suppliers to Britain include Ireland, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium and Italy, who account for well over half our food imports. 

At the same time a lot of our own food exports travel to these very same countries. Although Britain's trade, by both value and quantity, is expanding around the world, Europe still represents our biggest market for most goods. As such, the idea that we need a navy the size of that which held off Napoleon just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

It also brings us to another point about the whole "We are an Island you know" argument, one that too often falls by the way side. And this one mainly concerns the army.

Simply put, events on mainland Europe (and elsewhere) can have a direct impact on the security of our own nation. Back in the Cold War, the British Army Of the Rhine (BAOR) represented one component of the force that was designed to hold back the oncoming Russian hordes long enough for (in theory) the US to shift forces to Europe. Before that, Britain had deployed armies onto the continent before both world wars, with the aim of strengthening French resistance to any hostile moves by Germany. 

In the First World War this worked well, the Second... not so much.

As a direct result of this, Germany was able to exploit the use of France to attack both Britain and its supply lines. Airfields in Northern France became home to Luftwaffe fighters and bombers that otherwise would have struggled to reach the British mainland. As mentioned earlier, the Germans were also able to use airfields in France as bases for their Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

In the naval sphere, the fall of France opened up three big advantages for the Germans. Firstly it provided Germany with breathing room in the West by denying the allies access to French ports. If the allies were going to take the war to Germany on land then it would take a supreme amphibious effort to force a lodgement on French soil. It wasn't until June of 1944 that such an effort could be conducted.

Secondly, it opened up the French ports and harbours for use by small German torpedo boats. These very fast boats (45-55 mph) - actually carrying a combination of torpedoes and small cannon - proved a serious menace to Merchant shipping in the channel. 

Thirdly, it permitted the Germans to build heavily fortified submarine pens along the west coast of France. Despite being within the range of allied bombers based in Britain, these bunkers were so well protected that allied bombs could pose no real risk to them and the submarines kept inside. Operating from these bases opened up a much quicker and much safer route for German submarines heading into the Atlantic to attack British shipping.

Thus, we can clearly see how events on the continent directly effect the safety and security of Britain itself. With the advances in both modern naval and air power, there is more to defending Britain than simply throwing up a ring of ships.

Of course this all assumes that the primary concern of British defence in the near future is solely defence of the home islands. While that's a factor, we also have to consider the wider implications of what that term "British Defence" means. Britain's interests are wide spread, including various friends and allies. And their interests.

Indeed Britain hasn't fought a ground battle on its own, mainland soil for a very, very long time (the Battle of Culloden, 1746). Yet the British army is replete with the history and honours of actions abroad, because the Empire drew Britain's army into many actions that were needed to protect the interests of Britain abroad.

So it remains today. Just because Britain itself is currently free from the threat of invasion, that does not mean that Britain no longer requires a strong army. While you can debate the need for getting involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was little doubt about the wider British of interest of joining the coalition that fought against Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf war. And while people may debate the details and execution of the war in Afghanistan, it is pretty much unequivocal that standing beside our American allies to hunt down members of Al Qaeda was in the British national interest.

What benefits Britain in the long run may not always be obvious to the general public, but there are plenty of areas in this world in which we retain a strong national interest. The ability to intervene on land to protect those interests, or to remove a threat hostile to us, is a critical component of a modern, broad spectrum armed forces such as those that we have today.

And that's really the note on which I want to end this. We in Britain currently retain a fairly broad number of military capabilities, on land, in the air, and on (and under) the waves. 

In 2011 alone we found ourselves simultaneously fighting a Brigade sized enduring campaign in the difficult terrain of Afghanistan, some 3500 miles from home, while at the same time providing a significant Naval task force to support operations off the Libyan coast, while also providing close air support to the rebel forces on the ground and airborne ISTAR for the benefit of NATO commanders, while also maintaining a strong, high quality mine countermeasures task force in the Persian Gulf, while also running our nuclear Continuous At Sea Deterrent, along with a host of other smaller tasks and postings.

Quite simply, while UK forces may not be able to match the size and scope of US forces (for obvious reasons), it's very difficult to find someone who can in turn match ours. This diversity of equipment and skills is needed to face the variety of challenges that the modern world currently presents to us and is likely to present to us in the near future.

We need to keep hold of that diversity, not swing violently to the extreme of a "maritime strategy" just because some people like reading books about the old Royal Navy and dream of resurrecting it despite not knowing what they would do with it, or being able to explain how it would further Britain's defence. 

We are an Island. I do know. 

But this is the 21st Century, not the 19th.


  1. So your point is, the UK has repeatedly failed to hold the mainland, and that failure has allowed the enemy to strike at us. Our weakened airforce and navy (weakened by the need to maintain ground forces in Europe) has been unable to prevent these strikes.

    And that the solution is to further weaken our Navy and Airforce, to support an army that has never once not broken and ran from the enemy?

    Surely it makes more sense to simply prepare our Airforce and Navy for strikes from France?

    Your point would be less laughable if France herself considered the west German plains as important as we did. But she doesnt.
    Neither France, nor Spain, nor Portugal maintained forces in Germany to defend against the Red Terror.
    Why should we?

    1. @ TrT

      What. The. Hell. Are. You. Talking. About?

      At least you've progressed up a stage from gassing Afghan villages. In a few years you may just make a coherent and well thought out comment for a change.

      So you're saying you think that the British army has never once not broken and run from the enemy? News to me. News to a lot of people I'd imagine. You ought to write a book about it, seeing as how I suspect nobody has ever heard that particular theory before.

      I mean, I could have sworn that the British army stood firm at Waterloo for example, before throwing the French army back in disarray thus preventing Napoleon from advancing on Antwerp, a well protected port he had previously poured money into in the hope of building it up to challenge the UK.

      Or the British forces deployed to France in 1914, who helped stem the German advance and prevented them marching across that country seizing ports along the way.

      I'm not sure you're in a good position to be calling other peoples points laughable.

    2. Yes, they fought at waterloo, after running all the way to Lisbon...
      They also stood at the Marne, after retreating there in the first place...
      They also stormed the beaches at Normandy, after breaking and running, well, google Dunkirk...

    3. Your naivety is breathtaking. That's about all I can say.

  2. What I understood was that "We are an Island you know...." advocates plowing more of the "ever smaller purse" into the Navy at the expense of other services and TD believes that diversity in all services is much more important.

    My thoughts are that the Purse will not increase any time soon that we really do not need seperate services fighting for superiority and we should have only one service "UK Armed Forces".


    1. Hello Steven,

      I can't see the purse getting any bigger either, not anytime soon anyway (barring some great disaster etc). However I do think the services are big enough and engaged in a wide enough variety of activities to warrant their individuality.

      Cheers for commenting.

  3. Good post, plenty of food for thought. Two things came to mind when reading the post: firstly the threat from cyber attack, which is surely the latest incarnation of technology that bypasses "British seapower", or the perception that we need a bigger navy (or armed forces in general) to protect the national interests. From the submarine, to aircraft, to missiles, we've now hit cyber-warfare. Does it make sense to increase the escort force to 50 destroyers and frigates, have 1000 MBTs, and 300 Typhoons, when the ability to deploy them can be nullfied through a coordinated cyber-attack? I'm not saying that cyber-warfare has made conventional forces obsolete, I should point out. But in hindsight, what was the point in investing in battleships from 1940 onwards when airpower had visibly come to the fore? A similar question might be asked in the future: why did Britain invest *so much* in this-or-that project when cyber warfare was the ascendancy? (sounded better in my head!)

    Secondly, like you said Chris, we get half our food imports from European countries. So our supply lines for food are at least half secure in that they come from relatively close countries with friendly, democratic and allied countries. Not that proximity and friendliness doesnt stop lorries, ships and tunnels from getting blown up by terrorists anyway, but the supply route is shorter through more stable countries/environments. But these same countries are like us in that their energy imports may also come through a potentially volatile and easily disrupted route (Persian Gulf past the Horn of Africa through to Suez, for example). This fact is not lost on those countries, which is why they contribute to EUNAVFOR Somalia or one of the US-led Combined Task Forces in the region. Do we really need a substantially larger navy to guard the area single-handedly, when other countries are already contributing ships to the same end but in cooperation?

    1. Hello Stephen,

      I would say about Battleships that by that point in history, the Aircraft Carrier hadn't firmly entrenched itself. It was still another year before the full devestating power of the aircraft carrier came to the fore. The battleship also served as a dual purpose, both providing a large gun platform for close defence of aircraft carriers (against both air and surface targets), and as a platform for the heavy guns to support amphibious operations and coastal strikes.

      Cyber Warfare I'm not sure about yet. A lot of what you hear about as "Cyber Warfare" on the TV is more about using tricks and techniques perfected by criminals to cause disruption and sometimes economic damage, but on a very low scale in the grand scheme of things. Military facilities and indeed things like warships and computers in the field should be operating on a closed network that is almost impossible to hack unless you have direct access to a terminal. It's a concern, but I wonder how real the threat is and how much danger is genuinely posed.

      You're right about the middle east and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we're not the only ones with a vested interest. We have a superb naval capability in many areas (part of our broad spectrum capability), which when combined with other interested parties does an excellent job of protecting those routes.

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  5. Well last time I looked we the UK was still an island nation. You have fallen into the classic trap of believing that the advent of airpower has changed everything and the lessons of history are invalidated.

    It is often claimed it was the RAF that 'saved us' in the Battle of Britain. (We all love a spitfire and admire the 'few'). Although the failure to gain air-superiority put the Germans off and the the voices in Hitlers head told him to invade Russia, the truth is the Germans could not have invaded Britain because they lacked the amphibious craft required to cross the Channel and land successfully. (The benefits of being an Island nation) Even if they had tried it the Royal Navy home fleet would have slaughtered them before they even got close. The RN would have lost a lot of ships to bombing for sure, but the German army would have been drowned.

    Today is the majority of the UK's imports and exports still travel by sea to get to the island. (The Channel tunnel and air freight accounts for less than 5%). The UK is dependent on sea-borne trade for much of its food and increasingly its energy, not to mention virtually every type of widget manufactured abroad. Although Europe is a key trading partner and we have the Channel Tunnel, we are still very reliant on shipping from all parts of the globe, the Middle East and Far East in particular. It is the protection of this vulnerable shipping from around the world that is glaringly obvious basis for a stronger more powerful navy (indeed an maritime-centred defence strategy would make sense see: ) The frustrating reality for the hoards of aviation enthusiasts obsessed with sexy planes is that aircraft can transport tiny amounts (quickly) but at great cost while the dull old merchant ships can carry huge volumes of cargo(slowly) but cheaply and the laws of physics mean this will never change.

    Airpower is a decisive factor in any conflict and we do need Maritime Patrol Aircraft as a matter of urgency. However we would do much better to move investment away from land-based fighter/bombers and invest properly in carrier-based airpower with it's global reach. In the unlikely event of a direct threat to UK mainland carrier-based aircraft can always operate from land bases. Today the RN is threadbare and totally inadequate to protect our sea lines of communication, while we continue to waste money on short-range Typhoons and Tornadoes that can contribute little to our strategic interests.

    1. Hello NavyLookout,

      We are an Island indeed. However I would argue that it is you who have fallen into the trap, the trap of not seeing how airpower has shifted the balance of capabilities required.

      For the BofB I would say that the Germans thought it extremely difficult, and it certainly was a difficult challenge, but without opposition in the air (or minimal opposition) they could have done it. They would have had the luxury of bombing the Home Fleet at anchor, using air dropped mines to disrupt the entrances and exits to our harbours, then the freedom to launch repeated, heavy air assaults on the fleet in a manner more fearsome than seen at Crete, and that's before we get to waiting submarines. It would certainly have been a much more close run thing than I think you're giving it credit for.

      I would also argue that the frustrating reality for naval enthusiasts (I consider myself a balanced/joint enthusiast) is that security of sea lanes has evolved beyoned just having ships sailing around. Shipping companies have found it very effective to hire private, armed security guards for their ships during dangerous transits. And historically the most effective defence against groups such as pirates has been to actually go ashore and eliminate their safe havens, fighting the cause of the disease and not just the symptoms.

      I would also suggest that land based aircraft have global reach in many ways. Launched from the UK, a Squadron of land based aircraft making transits to various bases/tanking will arrive in a new theatre well ahead of an aircraft carrier. I also happen to think that aircraft like Typhoon/Tornado have proven very capable at meeting many of our military needs abroad.

      And I have to disagree with you about the RN, I think it has far more capability today than many people give it credit for. Working with our myriad of allies, it has proven highly capable at responding to and handling a wide variety of tasks.

      Finally, thank you both for stopping by and commenting, and also for the link back to here. Much obliged.

  6. ' It is the protection of this vulnerable shipping from around the world that is glaringly obvious basis for a stronger more powerful navy '

    What threats are there to this shipping that means we need a stronger navy?

    1. Obviously there is no specific state threatening shipping at present, although piracy and terrorism are current issues. There are however, plenty of possible scenarios where our economy could be put on its knees in very short time by state-sponsored attacks on shipping at choke points. The whole point of defence is to be prepared for a variety of scenarios, possible or unexpected. For a more specific discussion about threats see:

  7. ' Obviously there is no specific state threatening shipping at present'

    That's my point, it's at somewhat odds to your statement.

    'It is the protection of this vulnerable shipping from around the world that is glaringly obvious basis '

    If there are few threats out there, the case is anything but 'glaringly obvious'

  8. Follow that logic and we could abandon defence entirely if we only worry about right now. Defence planning is being ready for as many eventualities as possible and requires thinking 10-20 years ahead. Strategy involves considering what are the key requirements for national survival and prosperity. Real strategic thinking appears to be almost non-existent in the UK.

  9. No it wouldn't, it's about balanced risk usually cost based. There is no logic to follow in my point that would arrive at us 'abandoning defence'. It's no something I think is a favourable outcome nor likely. Not supporting an increase in the navy isn't the same as abandoning defence. Although it is quite interesting you equate the two.

    The level of threat that you acknowledge is out there and likely to be, is out of proportion (along with the voice of the hoards of online fans of the navy), to the solution suggested on the current evidence or likelyhood. That's why I said ''the case is anything but 'glaringly obvious'''

  10. Hi Chris - Excellent post - Only got time for a very quick comment:

    "That point being that a lot our trade travels to and from no further than the continent" - Where does all our LNG come from and how does it get here?

    Agree aircraft are a very potent weapon of war, which is why I'm keen on carriers. Whenever we deploy our forces we should strive to always provide them with air cover so carriers and aircraft capable of operating from them or from land are simply a no-brainer for me. This isn't being pro-navy for the hell of it - perfectly happy to see RAF make up the air group - let the army crew the helicopters - not bothered what uniform they wear it's the capability that matters. I'd put that last bit in bold letters if I could.

    You don't mention ABM defence - US giving at least equal priority to ship-based systems as land based - perhaps because the former can also be offensive while the latter are purely defensive?

    Sorry it's all a bit rushed but I'm off out and wanted to make my points before someone beat me to it. Your post deserves a more considered response.

    Haven't even got time to properly insult the 49ers. "Change of name to 108 yarders?" will have to do. :-)

    1. I think I might institute a new rule preventing Patriots supporting scumbag fans from posting comments on the blog ;)

      Our general gas supplies come from a diverse range of sources, much of it a short hop across the North Sea, and hopefully soon much of it will come from underneath Lancashire. I did say "a lot of our trade" not "all of our trade". The Persian Gulf is a good example of the broad spectrum capability I've been harping on about, as we have a mix of forces down there, and maintain close ties in terms of training with states in the region, states that would from the foundation of a response against someone like Iran.

      On what to buy for the carriers, I absolutely agree that if the RAF gets F-35 then they should get the same as the FAA. The extra few mph of speed on an A or extra miles of range on a C is not worth creating two fleets over, especially as that then significantly restricts the capacity to surge aircraft on the carriers.

      On ABMD, it seems we're chatting with the cousins about the possibility of developing this on Type 45. Would certainly add an impressive new capability. I would say though that modern land based SAM/ABDM is normally going to come in the form of a truck mounted system (there is a truck mounted version of Aster), which you can essentially pick up and take anywhere you want. You can fly most such systems out to a theatre of significance in the back of a C-17, so we're talking <24-48 hours to get from the UK to the other side of the world, and once deployed can be driven up and down highways to new locations at 2-3x the speed a ship can redploy.

      Now drink this potion and repeat after me; Horses for courses. Flexibility. Broad spectrum capabilities... ;)

    2. Hi Chris, back for another nibble.

      And what was the best defence against the FW200 Condors?

      First this:

      Then later this:

      Damn flexible things carriers, enabling a broad spectrum of capabilities, both in war and in peacetime ;-) This is not to decry the value of other services, their people or equipment; just that some horses can tackle a greater variety of courses than others.

      "Shipping companies have found it very effective to hire private, armed security guards for their ships during dangerous transits." - Yes but I'm not aware of any private firms offering MCM services! But of course a minehunter can do much more than "just" hunt mines. That word "flexible" springs to mind again. Helicopters are also very flexible, MBTs not so much so, so I'd say that while it would be a good thing to have plenty of high quality MBTs in our arsenal, we'd be better off giving them a lower priority than good helicopters. It's a question of priorities and bang for buck.

    3. Bonjourno Mr Ape,

      The CAM and escort ships were a great success, indeed not just against the Condor. But fundamentally it was the fall of France that gave them the opportunity to start with, and operations didn't cease until France itself was liberated.

      As for tanks, tanks can blow things up but they can also be used as a very visible tool of deterance. The soldiers it carries, and indeed personnel in general, are the most flexible assets we possess in our armed forces.

      When you consider the ratio cost wise of MBT's to helicopters, devouring an entire armoured regiment buys you very little in the way of additional helicopters, at the expense of having lost a very powerful capability in the land environment, one that we seem to get a lot of use out of.

      The point about the private security guards was to demonstrate that just because something might be threatened on the sea, does not always mean that the solution to that threat is something else that floats. This can apply equally to threats that fly or operate on land. Attack helicopters can pose a significant risk to tanks for example. And as has been demonstrated multiple times over the years by our own special forces, a few soldiers on the ground with guns and demolition charges can be a major threat to the latest combat aircraft.

      That's the major bug I have with the "we are an Island" quote, when people automatically reach for the naval solution to everything and refuse to acknowledge that there are plenty of ways to skin a cat, some of them far cheaper and more effective than things that float.

    4. "...there are plenty of ways to skin a cat, some of them far cheaper and more effective than things that float." - No argument from me there. I would love to see at least a couple more Typhoons (and all of them adapted for anti-ship role) deployed to the Falklands (don't worry, I'm standing on one leg) to relieve RN of having to send a destroyer/frigate to the back of beyond on a continuous basis.

      I wonder if we have not reached, or are rapidly approaching a point, where we have to ask: Can the UK continue to afford to field a broad multi-spectrum armed forces capability, or should we accept that major ops are beyond us except in coalition with others and concentrate our expenditure and effort in more limited areas? For example, everyone's got infantry, so should we maintain a large standing army, while not many have AWACS, so should we divert funds to maintain and even upgrade this capability? If we are to trim our sails then in what areas would our money best be spent?

      I think the last SDSR has already started us down this path; I for one don't expect a big upturn in defence spending even if/when our economy recovers. It's the old "Well you've managed with less for this long, so..." argument beloved of politicians who can't think further ahead than the next election.

    5. Standing on one leg? That must be the pirate spirit in you!

      I'd agree, the omission of certain capabilities like ASuW and SEAD for Typhoon is worrying, as is the lack of haste in getting Crowsnest sorted, the lack of investment in things like TLAM for Submarines and Type 26 (and could have been Type 45).

      That's the biggest issue I have with the MoD. We seem to spend lots of money on all manner of big ticket items, then sweep the rug from under our own feet by missing out on all the little things that multiply the capability of them.

      Still, £33 billion defence budget. That's a hell of a lot of money and while it may even shrink a little more in real terms over time, it's still at a very high level.

      The issue I have with the "every one has this and that..." type argument is that not everyone is prepared to come and play. Germany has a sizable force in many areas, but very seldom seeks to get involved in the same operations that we do. Selling off our boots to invest in a more gucci raincoat only guarantees that when it next rains our shirt will remain dry and our feet will get soaked through.

      Building with allies in mind (NATO commonality), and seeking to be an operational leader and organiser for allies is a positive step, but we need to retain the ability to do as many (if not most) of the various military tasks ourselves, for when everyone else decides not to come and play.

      I just think we have to be more intelligent about it and somehow convince the government that a tinsy, wincy bit more investment in some core areas wouldn't go amiss.

    6. Absolutely agree that £30 odd billion is a shedload of cash; honestly, the way some people go on about "there is no money" you would think we do defence on a shoestring.

      I'm a little uncertain about this idea of outsourcing defence procurement (the cousins don't seem too keen either: but given MoD's appalling record for keeping in budget and on time, I feel we've got to try something different to what we've been doing for decades.

      I think the whole coalition argument is really nothing more than a smokescreen for defence cuts and capability gaps. Look at Libya: the Italians didn't want to get involved at all at first while other NATO allies were a complete no show - at a NATO led operation! Unbelieveable. As I've said before we can expect no help in protecting our interests from our fair weather friends. That being the case, where are our interests most threatened and how do we best defend them. With the exception of cyber and terrorism (which are as much a law enforcement as a defence issue) I would suggest that we are most vulnerable and most threatened overseas and along the commercial sea lanes. As Topman says, there's no state on state threat at present but if one develops it's no use waiting a decade or two while we build up the forces necessary to fight such a conflict. The main threat now are terrorist/pirate groups, perhaps backed by unfriendly states. Hence my belief that we need to increase the capability of our navy as that is the arm of our forces best able to defend those areas. The fact that ships also have a peacetime role (humanitarian relief, flying the flag, deterrence through presence, for example) is a bonus. This is not to suggest that the other forces should be slashed in order to build up the navy, but as I said earlier I think we have reached a point where we absolutely have to prioritise our spending on those things which give us best value for money and best service. You might argue that we should have more troops forward deployed around the world, perhaps with attached air support. Fine, but I think that would be more expensive and the troops would be more vulnerable - they would be targets for attack. I think, so soon after Iraq/Afghanistan, the UK public would have no stomach for that policy.

      "...convince the government that a tinsy, wincy bit more investment in some core areas wouldn't go amiss" - Good luck with that, but it's not going to happen during a recession is it. Perhaps what we need is something shocking that would open the eyes of our politicians and make them smell the coffee. Is it wrong of me to hope that the China Seas disputes lead to a shooting match which while I would hope we would stay well out of it, it would ram home the lesson that we live in a world of declining resources and rising population - especially in countries that envy our standard of living, and that those countries are prepared to get nasty to grab their and someone elses' share of those resources.

      Brazil and Argentina are closer than ever before politically; they were once at loggerheads over water rights. Might they cast an envious collective eye over the recently discovered oil and gas deposits in the South Atlantic, as well as the prospect of more in the Antarctic - or as we now call it, Queen Elizabeth Land. :-) Now is not the time to show weakness.

    7. I think the cash argument is the argument that there is no "extra" cash to be had, which is true. The tincy, wincy bit I would want really would be fairly small. I think part of the problem is that old colonels, air marshals and admirals appear on TV and in the papers essentially going the UKIP route and trying to argue for a massive increase in spending. If the service chiefs and Mr. Hammond could approach it from a more subtle angle, with much more modest requests for added funds then that might, might just work.

      And yes, I'm very worried by the GOCO proposal. The government has made up its mind and that's that unfortunately. There have been many problems with procurement, but farming it out to the private sector is not going to help.

      On to where we are threatened,

      Part of the problem is that beyond about the next 12 months we don't really know. We can only guess based on certain factors, and even then it's a bit cloudy. Hence why retaining qute a wide spectrum of options would be beneficial I think.

      I'm not sure the sea routes are such a problem. The levels of piracy have reduced significantly and the "threat" was not really that high. Nuisance level, absolutely. Unpleasant, absolutely. Expensive for some, undoubtedly. But I think it's hard to argue that pirates are a major national security threat. The day they start seriously threatening the long term safety and security of the UK will be the day before we roll up on their doorstep for a quick chat, no biscuits.

      The major problem we have as a state, from a military perspective, is that we have no clear, unifying threat. Which on balance is a very, very good thing. I'm glad we have the luxury of choice and balance.

  11. "Just because Britain itself is currently free from the threat of invasion, that does not mean that Britain no longer requires a strong army"

    Indeed not, it just so happens that in a post USSR century we now have a useful army well balanced with an appropriately capable navy.

    All courtesy of the choices of the SDSR and SDSR+.

    1. Hello Jedi,

      Looking at the mix we have now, it is quite impressively balanced, providing everything sticks till 2020 and the arrival of the first carrier. If we could just squeeze a bit more money out of the government now to guarantee/speed up things like Crowsnest, getting SS on Typhoon, getting Scout into service sometime this century etc.

  12. "We are an Island indeed. However I would argue that it is you who have fallen into the trap, the trap of not seeing how airpower has shifted the balance of capabilities required."

    Islands are defended by Sea and Air.
    And project power by sea and air.

    What exactly is your point?
    Becuase so far the only concrete thing you have said is that we need a big army to stop French Airfields being turned against us.
    Something the British Army has *never* been able to do.

    1. Let me ask you a question; What happens to the situation in WW2 if the British army is not able to hold off the German/Italian forces in the North African theatre, allowing the German/Italian forces to pour into the oil fields of the middle east?

      Your incredibly narrow minded approach of water barrier = sea and air defence only belies the fact that defence is more complex than that.

      Think about how a carrier battle group works. You have the interceptors and the AEW. Then you have the escorts like Type 45, perhaps with a second inner layer of Type 23. Then you have the Carriers own defences. You try to keep the threat as far away from the Carrier as possible within the circumstances, by putting up various layers, various barriers in the enemies way.

      That's what we're talking about here. The army is one layer.

      And you kind of make the point for me. Imagine for a second that we take all the battleships (just the battleships) in the Home fleet at the time and we convert the spending on them and their crew into army capability, deployed early in the war to Northern France.

      Now you have extra divisions, probably armoured, to face down the threat. A lot of people don't realise just how much of a close run thing the campaign in the Low Countries was, and how vulnerable even a lot of the front line commanders felt their position was (and indeed it was). A stronger counter attack at Arras for example, with two extra armoured divisions perhaps, could have completely change the tide of the war.

      Food for thought.

    2. "Let me ask you a question; What happens to the situation in WW2 if the British army is not able to hold off the German/Italian forces in the North African theatre, allowing the German/Italian forces to pour into the oil fields of the middle east? "

      Three points.
      Firstly, this smacks of desperation, a minute ago, it was to stop bombs dropping on the UK by holding France (and presumably Spain, Norway, Iceland, Ireland and Greenland?).
      Now we cant stop anyone who wants to bombing the UK, but we can keep them out Arabia. Forgive me if I'm not sold on, "**** Coventry, we must protect the people of Cairo".
      Secondly, again, the British Army broke and ran in North Africa. The war was won not by the cunning strategies of the Desert Fox, but by the continual bleeding of Italian and German logistics by the RAF and RN based on Malta.

      150,000 Allied Soldiers fought at El Alamein.
      1,500,000 British Soldiers fought in the Battle of France.
      El Alamein is great. Its how the UK should fight land wars. Extend the enemy supply lines to breaking point, bleed them dry by blowing their logistical efforts and then roll them up, but its a victory of sea and air with supporting land, not a victory of land power.

      "Now you have extra divisions, probably armoured, to face down the threat. A lot of people don't realise just how much of a close run thing the campaign in the Low Countries was, and how vulnerable even a lot of the front line commanders felt their position was (and indeed it was). A stronger counter attack at Arras for example, with two extra armoured divisions perhaps, could have completely change the tide of the war."
      Quite possibly.
      How would the war against Japan have gone?

      You're fixated on Europe. The UKs interests are not continental, but "Army First" locks us in to a continental mentality, when our interests are global.
      Its an overused example, but having the worlds greatest armoured division counted for nothing during a war in the south atlantic.

      We both agree that defense of the home islands is the primary purpose of the UK Armed Forces yes?
      And that the most realistic threat is attack from the air? Yes?
      I just dont understand the logic that says the correct way to prevent an air attack on the UK is to occupy France, and Norway, and Iceland, and Greenland, and Spain, and Ireland, and Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Germany, and Denmark, and Sweden, and Svaalbad, and Finland, "(and Russia?), rather than have an air force capable of shooting them down.

      And how do we defend The Overseas Territories? Or going back a bit, India?
      A vast land army tied to Europe cant do it.

      The most important asset for defence of the UK (and all islands), is fighters (and supporting assets) based in the UK (or those islands) to shoot down incoming aircraft and sink incoming ships.
      The most important asset for power projection from the UK is the ships to safely transport our forces from these islands.

      Anything that cant get to the warzone is worse than useless, and since we are an island you know, we cant march from London to Berlin*, unlike the continentals, who can march between Paris and Berlin with ease
      *Not strictly true of course, but I cant imagine any soldiers could swim the channel in full kit.

    3. @ TrT,

      The problem with arguing with you is simple; you don't have the first clue what you're talking about. It's like trying to discuss grand strategy with someone who's only read a Puffin book on world war two.

      The army did not "break and run" in North Africa. Both sides had to advance and withdraw in accordance with the ebb and flow of the operational situation. That you do not understand this concept is your problem, not theirs, and does not give you the right to trample on the memory of many, many brave men from many countries.

      The victory in North Africa was absolutely a victory of land forces, supported by the other two services. That you do not understand this is your problem, not theirs. I refer you back to your puffin book of world war two.

      And you clearly missed the point that the forces deployed to North Africa were not there to protect Iraqi civilians. They were there to protect a key part of the connection with the Eastern empire, as well as the vast amounts of oil present in the middle east, both securing them for the allies and denying them to the Germans. Again, I suspect Puffin didn't mention that in their book.

      "You're fixated on Europe. The UKs interests are not continental"
      -- Yes, they are. While we do trade globally, the majority of our interests, our future, our wealth, all are intimately tied to Europe. Even as an opponent of the EU I can see that and acknowledge it.

      "I just dont understand the logic that says the correct way to prevent an air attack on the UK is to occupy France, and Norway, and Iceland, and Greenland, [etc]"
      -- Think about this for a second; German fighters in WW2 had limited fuel for combat over the South of England and that was launching from bases all along the French coast. What happens if you push those bases back, out of France? Can the German bombers still carry the same bomb loads? How do you not understand the logic that keeping the enemy as far away as possible from something you are trying to protect is benefitial?

      I'd also like to pick up your point about the Falklands. Remind me again who it was that went ashore and ejected the Argentines? Was it or was it not a division sized land force that had to go and engage the enemy at close quarters?

  13. Hi Chris, enjoyed reading the post also. I agree, getting a balance between the 3 branches of the armed forces is key. Would like to make 3 points:

    - Simplistic arguments such as "we are an Island don't you know" don't justify policies though clearly for a foreign force to invade and control the UK it is going to travel by sea. How you defend against that is the argument. Holding the "ground" at sea cannot be done via airpower alone any more than it can on the land.
    - Presence, in my view is going to be the key to many future conflicts. With an increased reluctance to physically put boots on the ground both from the west and from the "liberated" country, new ways of having presence are needed. As air assets at best can gave presence for a few hours, naval assets can be positioned for months as Libya showed. Also, as aircraft carriers demonstrate it is also quicker to get significant capabilities into the area of Operations.
    - Lastly, with the Cold War focused on Europe and the withdrawl from "East of Seuz" - over the past 40 years there have been significantly more cuts to the navy than the other two services. Perhaps an increased budget for the Navy would be just returning to a globally focused balanced forces.

    1. Hello Anon (you didn't leave a name),

      1) Agreed. You would see an integration of various components to keep the seas clear. The point being that just because we're an Island does not automatically default our defence policy to being a large navy and almost nothing else.

      2) Presence is a tough one, because like "influence" it's almost an esoteric thing. Think about Russian nuclear weapons. We can't see them. We don't even know for 100% certain whether the Russians actually have anything working in their silos. Yet they influence us. They have a presence, like the "fleet in being" concept.

      If you look at Libya, the airstrikes we conducted demonstrated a "presence" to the Libyans, even though the aircraft themselves were based a long way away. I'd also refer you to Desert Shield, the movement of allied forces into Saudi Arabia to deter further Iraqi aggression. That was achieved by moving in a sizable air force presence, in a very rapid deployment.

      When unconstrained by the speed of the ship, you can move significant amounts of air assets across the globe in a fairly rapid time span. Obviously that costs money, but you're trading speed for cost. It's all a bit horses for courses.

      3) I wouldn't say that at all. In terms of raw manpower, the Army has suffered the worse % cuts. The RAF has lost 75% of its combat aircraft strength over the last two decades. All the services have been hit very hard unfortunately, but it's very difficult to argue that the Navy has had it the worst.

  14. Hey Chris,

    Excellent article!

    I agree totally with you on that a balanced force is required to meet the challenges of the future especially as Britain shares many interests with its allies who can integrate the required assets hen it is needed. From what I have seen most of the 'we are an island' talk originates from the Falklands as with a decreasing navy many believe Britain leaves it less secure (it is not called Fortress Falkland for nothing!) and that a liberation effort of the islands will not be successful.

    The next step I believe is to forward base many assets abroad such as has been discussed by RUSI recently As this allows Britain to concentrate on getting personnel into theatre as much of the kit is already in place for operations.

    ISTAR is the area I believe to need the most investment at the moment.


    1. Hello Ali,

      The problem with forward basing is that it could prove expensive to maintain lots of infrastructure and equipment on a permanent basis around the world. We might have to be quite selective, which causes problems in that we don't know where the next hot spot will be.

    2. Chris,

      Good point but I was thinking more on the lines as have been described in the lecture given by the Chief of Defence Staff with maintaining some kit abroad or have I misunderstood that completely?

    3. Hello Ali,

      Putting kit abroad is an option, but it needs a certain amount of support to keep it in good nick, even if not being used. The governments stance on the draw down from Germany seems like a good indicator of their willingness to keep equipment deployed abroad.

      I have an odd feeling that as the government is intending to move a lot of kit from Afghanistan to the middle east to save cash on bringing it all the way back, that they may start trying to flog a lot of it off to middle eastern nations.

  15. Oh yeah I also forgot this book provides some interesting insights into the world of cyber warfare if you are interested.

  16. In fairness the "We are an Island" defence mostly comes up in response to the "Scrap the elephants" gambit...and both are based on the "redistribution of resources delusion" - the belief that if we get rid of x we will get more y - actually, we will just have less overall...

    In a purple world, none of it very helpful.

    Aka GNB

    1. Hello GNB,

      Agreed that if stuff gets scrapped now in this environment, then it's likely to be for total cost savings as opposed to freeing money for redistribution, depending on the value of the scrapped item.

      I would however disagree that the "we are an Island" defence is only used on retaliation. For most people I've seen use it, it is their first port of call so to speak. I find its use is often tied to a wider belief about the structure of the armed forces, a pre-determined position, as opposed to a response.

  17. Great post chris - really thought provoking.

    We spend a lot of time assuming that if we have grey hulls then all is well with the world, but in reality, the ability to discretely put air or land forces to do a job often obviates the requirement to have UK based maritime assets in the first place.

    We as a nation spend far too much time refighting old wars with new technologies to create imagined glory...

    1. Evening Sir H,

      "We as a nation spend far too much time refighting old wars with new technologies to create imagined glory.."

      -- Well said that man!

      It's actually quite remarkable when you sit down and look at all of our present capabilities, plus those that we are soon to acquire (and might yet acquire), just how capable the UK armed forces really are in all three environments.

      I also think you hit the nail on the head with the grey hulls. I've seen lots of fantasy fleets that have plenty of numbers of ship x and aircraft y, but no real explanation as to why that particular piece of equipment is needed, why in those numbers, or how that would change the real day to day capability of the forces?

  18. "... just how capable the UK armed forces really are in all three environments."

    We do indeed have some very good kit, and superb people, but not enough of either to do much of anything.

    I hope that the next strategic and Defence review might be based on foreign policy and what the nation requires our forces to do rather than be driven by the treasury imposing cash limits followed by tri-service squabbling over who gets what share. I am fairly certain my hopes will be dashed so another round of salami-slicing of capabilities will probably occur, unless of course someone takes a decision to actually concentrate resources where they can do most good for the defence of the realm. It is in that context that the "we are an island" and 95% (or whatever the figure is) of our trade is done by sea has a point.

    An island nation with no maritime patrol aircraft, half a dozen deployable warships and two, maybe three, deployable submarines may not have the right force mix to defend its vital interests.

    1. Afternoon,

      I highly doubt that the government is going to put any more money into defence. I think the Public Accounts Committee's fears that the government won't give the MoD a real terms increase in spending is probably on the money, if you'll pardon the pun.

      I would have to say that I think you're being slightly pessimistic about the numbers and capability though. Without a massive investment in defence (which is never going to happen unless someone on the continent starts arming up) then we're never going to start scratching the surface of US numbers, but we do still retain a alot of capability.

      We have 19 escorts which are basically considered the best by many in their respective classes. We have a fleet of seven subs on the way, that will be among the finest SSN to be found anywhere in the world, which builds on our reputation for excellence in that area that stems back to the sinking of the Belgrano and beyond. We will be getting two aircraft carriers, probably one active at a time, carrying the most advanced (albeit pricy) combat aircraft ever built.

      We still have gaps and that's what I'm hoping the next review will fill in, such as getting the proper funding in place for Crowsnest for a start. But we are pretty handy in the military domain as it stands now.

      Scything away that broad spectrum of capabilities in favour of concentration on one area, without a clear rationale as to why and what that concentration would actually do in practice, would - in my opinion - be even more damaging than further cuts.